Yesterday I joined Isabel Hilton and Becky Hogge in talking about chinadialogue.net with the Democracy Club in London. Isabel gave an overview. Becky described some of the technical challenges and achievements. This was fascinating and is worth a post and perhaps an article and discussion on chinadialogue itself. Some good points also came up in the discussion that followed. But here I want to publish some things I said regarding China's emissions, and the country's responsibilities.
My main point -- or challenge to engage -- for activists and others both inside and outside China is as follows. Yes, the richest industrialised nations need to act faster and more effectively to tackle climate change at home; but failure in the West is not a reason for people in China not to act urgently too. China may already exceed its share of globally sustainable emissions or is close to doing so, and the trend is negative notwithstanding all sorts of "green' investments. For reasons of basic self interest as well as natural justice, it is time for people in China to start engaging more actively with each other and the outside world on the politics of climate change.
The key points (or so I argue) are three. Here they are as a, b and c, followed by a request for responses:
A. China is close to or already exceeding its fair share of a "safe" level of emissions, and things are likely to get worse quickly.
Global emissions are currently about 7bn tonnes of carbon a year. China is the second largest single polluter, although the EU as a whole emits more. In 2004 China’s total emissions were about 1.2 billion tonnes – that is, about 17%, or slightly more than one sixth of the global total.
About one in five people on this planet is Chinese (actually 22%). If present day global emissions were allocated equally China would be entitled to about 1.5bn tonnes.
At recent rates of growth, Chinese emissions could take little more than three years to grow from 1.2bn tonnes, the level in 2004 to 1.5bn tonnes. This is assuming 10% annual economic growth and emissions rising more or less in step, which given consumption trends in China –- rising automobile ownership, more appliances in every household etc –- looks to me like a plausible scenario, although not of course the only one. (Incidentally, 10% growth gives a doubling time of a little over 8 years).
B. Where next?
Suppose you want to avoid dangerous climate change, or at least reduce the risk of it happening. The first step would be to slow and then stop the increasing rate of emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The next step would be to reduce total global emissions.
A proposal for a first step embraced by some policy makers in rich industrial countries is that emissions be stabilised at twice pre-industrial levels – that at approximately 560ppm of C02 (see, for example, Socolow et al, Scientific American, Sept 2006).
Each part per million of C02 corresponds to about 2.1bn tonnes of atmospheric carbon. The current level – about 380ppm – is 800bn tonnes. 560ppm would mean about 1,200 tonnes. So another 400bn tonnes would take us to 1,200. On this reasoning, it looks as if the world could emit another 400 billion tonnes, but no more, and not exceed this target.
Some people argue that we could actually emit twice that amount because the oceans and vegetation on land will soak up half of it. That argument has been challenged. Changes in the earth system as the world warms can mean that vegetation and soils become a net source rather than sink; using the oceans as a sink is causing acidification which is likely to have other serious consequences).
Further, it is open to question whether a doubling of GHG concentrations is “safe” – that is whether it means we avoid some [potentially disasterous impacts in China], and others. Advisors to the British Government and others have suggested that 450 or even 400ppm may be nearer the mark (see, for example, Schellnhuber et al Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change - and this discussion at RealClimate)
Virtually every advance in climate science points to bigger human impacts and more serious consequences than previously predicted. That being the case, caution is wise. And time is short. 560ppm would allow 57 years at present rate. 450 would allow 21 years. 400 would allow just 7 years. But in each case, emissions would have to be zero in the year after so there is even less time available for a feasible and rational transition, supposing you wanted to do it.
C. A political challenge
One of the first things that comes up when China and climate change are mentioned in the same breath is that the richest countries, historically and still today, are by far the biggest emitters per head, and have the responsibility to act first. This is certainly true. And it is often stressed, including, on chinadialogue, by Yu Hongyuan of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
The responsibility of the rich industrialised nations to act first was recognised in the UNFCC in 1992 and in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. China is a signatory to the Protocol, and benefits from some investment in clean and renewable energy projects under the CDM. The Europeans are also offering modest help for one coal plant with CCS by 2020 (you can read more on this an article by Jon Gibbins on chinadialogue).
In my view, as well as that of many others, the present level of commitment in rich countries is inadequate. These countries need to massively ratchet up their commitment to energy efficiency, demand management and clean energy at home and abroad. But – and again this is my view, that does not mean China has no responsibilities. Recall that is already close to or even past its “fair share” of the 7billion tonnes per year that is probably not safe.
In UK, after more than 20 years of concerted effort from scientists and their allies, we now have a mainstream politics of climate change. (Incidentally, openDemocracy hosted the first forum and debate with this title in spring 2005. It’s still there to view)
So far Britain’s politics of climate change includes such delightful spectacles as the son of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite corporate raider calling for limits on aviation at the Conservative Party Conference, and a motion being defeated.
It also includes David Miliband, the environment secretary, telling the Labour Party Conference that cutting carbon emissions should become the European Union’s primary purpose. He told delegates the EU would appeal to a new generation only if it came to stand for Environmental Union.
(It is notable by the way that both Zac Goldsmith and David Milliband are among the youngest members of the shadow team and the government)
Could something like this emerge in China? So far there are few outward signs. In November this year, for example, there will be demonstrations in over 50 countries calling for faster action to reduce emissions by the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (). Activists in some poor and vulnerable countries, such as Bangladesh, will be taking part. Two of the major countries where no events are listed are China and India.
Perhaps the first steps for a visible politics of climate change China will come elsewhere. Maybe they will be modelled on the kind of work that Ma Jun, a writer and campaigner on water issues, is doing with his colleagues. Ma Jun recently launched a site that names 2,500 companies that have broken pollution regulations in the water environment (see his recent interview on chinadialogue).
If you have read this far and are still awake and interested, please let me know what you think is right, wrong (irrelevant, passe) with the arguments I have outlined. I haven't even touched on inequalities within China, for example. My calculations regarding emissions should be checked too.
The full text on which I based my remarks is attached as a comment.
Perhaps this could help inform future dialogue on chinadialogue or elsewhere.
By the way, Isabel disagreed that there were few signs of a politics of climate change inside China. She pointed out that in a one party state (albeit a fragile one) much of the politics tends to take place inside the party. Deputy Environment Minister Pan Yue, she said, was among those pushing for political change on this issue.